Surkov’s "Sovereign" and "Managed" Democracy

The deputy head of Putin’s administration, Vladislav Surkov gave a rare press conference this week. His comments touched on energy geopolitics and Russian democracy. The latter topic has generated the most press as critics have tried to ascertain the meaning of Surkov’s use of “sovereign democracy” versus “managed democracy”. For the latter he gave this definition: “By managed democracy we understand political and economic regimes imposed by centres of global influence – and I am not going to mention specific countries – by force and deception.” Of course Russia doesn’t try to install “managed democracies” on its borders. Yeah, right. In this sense, Russia does what every power currently does. It uses the rhetoric of democracy as a tool of geopolitical maneuvering.

Take Surkov’s democratic rhetoric as an example. His definition of “managed democracy” is a direct reference to America’s view that the only democracy is American democracy or at least the only viable democracy is one that conforms to American interests. Surkov made these comments in the context Dick Cheney’s hypocrisy in labeling authoritarian states “democracies.” “When [Cheney] was in Kazakhstan after criticizing our democracy, he gave the highest rating to Kazakhstan’s democracy. The Kazakh people are our brothers. But I will never agree that Kazakhstan has gone further in building democracy than we have.” I’d have to score one to Surkov here. For Cheney to suggest that Nazarbayev’s regime approaches anything close to a democracy should evoke rancorous laughter. The point however is Russia is itself playing the “democracy” game by measuring others and itself against imagined, and self-referential idealism about its own democracy.

In contrast, western critics use the term “managed democracy” to describe Russia as “backsliding” into authoritarianism. Surkov essentially turned the Western usage on its head. According to Surkov, “managed democracy” is given to states that are under the American neo-imperial umbrella. So Karzai’s Afghanistan, Musharaf’s Pakistan, Mubark’s Egypt, and Iraq are democracies, while Russia is not. “They [the West],” charged Surkov in specific reference to American attempts to dominate the globes energy resources, “talk about democracy but they’re thinking about our natural resources.”

Instead, Russia is what Surkov calls a “sovereign democracy”—a democracy which acts in its own national interest and, (this got the goat of many Western reporters) is no different than democracy in Europe. “It [sovereign democracy] means we are building an open society, that we do not forget we are a free society, and that we do not want to be directed from outside,” said Surkov. In his view, Russia is moving away from the “managed democracy” of the 1990s, when Russia was racked by American influenced “shock therapy” and rule by oligarchs. “What are we backsliding from?” he asked rhetorically. “We are moving further and further away from this non-democracy.”

This semantic game was not lost on Sergei Roy, who had this to say in a recent commentary on the “managed” versus “sovereign” democracy:

Consider the controversy concerning “managed democracy” vs. “sovereign democracy.” Certain “purists” insist that either you have democracy or you don’t, that real democracy comes without any adjectives, that any additions to the concept make it less of a democracy or no democracy at all. Well, those purists should pay attention to the frequency with which the phrase “effective democracy” is used in the US ideological environment and, still more, to the practice of imposing this “effective democracy” throughout the world — most notably in Iraq, of course. Surkov’s, and quite a few other people’s, insistence on sovereign democracy means, quite simply, that to have a democracy in Russia, there must first be a Russia, recognizable to its people as their birthplace with a thousand-year history and a certain future as a single, indivisible country. A sovereign country. No wonder this term, sovereign democracy, is so virulently attacked by the said purists, for whom there can be only one kind of democracy the world over — American democracy. We see only too clearly, however, that American democracy abroad is democracy for Americans abroad and at home, not for the peoples of that “abroad.” Countries like Georgia and Ukraine are too close to Russia for us to miss the effect of the loss of sovereignty on democracy. To the US, these lands may appear to be beacons of freedom and democracy. At closer range, they look more like what the irreverent French call bordel de Dieu, the brothel of Our Lord. They are not even managed democracies, as Surkov calls them. They are mismanaged pseudo-democracies.

And I should not be too contemptuous of Georgia, Ukraine or the like. Just a few years ago, Russia was no better, with “democrats” like Gusinsky, Berezovsky, Nevzlin, Khdorkovsky, not forgetting the Family or Mr. Chernomyrdin (aka Schwarzmordekhai), ruling the land in collusion with the IMF, tearing the country apart, snarling at each other over the more succulent chunks of its assets, and stashing away the proceeds of plunder in foreign securities. That was the type of democracy in Russia that suited the West to a T. Like Surkov said, “If cannibals came to power in Russia and gave away certain things to certain people at once, they would be recognized as a democratic government.” Recall how fervent Mr. Cheney was in praise of Kazakhstani democracy on his recent visit there. Kazakhs are no cannibals, thank God, but they have given away their oil fields to Chevron — and were elevated to the status of arch-democrats by the US vice president. One might have asked what the Kazakh opposition had to say on this score — if there was any opposition worth the name to be found, for love or money.

However, while Roy agrees that Russia needs a Putin (which he refers to as “Putin A”) to move Russia away from domination by outsiders, Russia also needs a “Putin B” to act as counterweight, “otherwise the whole structure is a bit out of kilter and prone to dangerous instability.” This dangerous instability is seen in United Russia’s one party dominance over Russian politics.

What or who does Roy wish this until now non-existent counterweight to be? “A leader of the currently totally disorganized and apathetic masses, a leader who would unite these masses around a trade unions platform somewhat along the British trades union lines of the pre-Blair era. That is what the country needs — a “labor party” and a strong labor party leader, to kick the excreta out of the rotten, currently all-powerful yet incompetent bureaucratic machine and the grasping capitalists who are now exploiting and generally manhandling the proles any damn way they please.”

Roy’s comment echoes the hopes of Boris Kagarlitsky. Kagarlistky also muses on the fact that something is missing in Russian politics. And that “something” is none other than social democracy. Though much of Europe is in the hands of social democratic parties, social democracy as it was known in the early and middle part of the 20th century has all but collapsed. Social Democrats have further reconciled themselves to the Thatcherite slogan, “There is no alternative” to neo-liberal capitalism.

For Russia, however, social democracy has been bankrupt much longer. The ineffectiveness and political stupidity of the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1917 along with its branding as the ideology of “enemies of the people” in the Soviet period, has relegated any social democratic hopes thoroughly in the hands of the equally moribund Communist Party. These folks, in Kagarlitsky’s eyes, are much worse than the Third Wayers in Western Europe. At least the Blairites and Schroederites bare some resemblance to a social democracy now past. Gennady Zyuganov’s “Communists” are nothing more than conservative nationalists wrapped in the red flag of working class emancipation.

It is because of this that Kagarlitsky’s (and Roys’ for that matter) hopes for the development of a Western style social democratic alternative to United Russia are only that, hopes. A substitute will come along to challenge United Russia in the political duel for Russia’s “sovereign democracy”. It just won’t be a force with a social democratic face.

So what does this all have to do with Surkov’s concept of Russia’s “sovereign democracy”? It seems that it has strange bedfellows. Roy’s doesn’t reject the notion. I doubt Kagarlitsky would either. Russian democracy should be a contest that has Russian interests in mind. It should be a sort of nationalist democracy. (And here I use nationalist to mean that it should be conducted without outside influence.) The differences are that Surkov’s democracy looks fine without an opposition to Putin/United Russia. Democracy under the helm of these two powerful forces, though not without problems, is sailing along just fine. For Roy and Kagarlitsky, this smooth sailing is only a dream vacation cruise that is steeped in ideological smoke and political grift. The real journey will undoubtedly hit some rough and choppy waters that will inevitably veer Russia’s “sovereign democracy” into the oncoming rocks.

Scroll to top